Groundwater, Wealth, Contentment, Health read words superimposed onto a picture of Modestos beloved arch, in a slide splashed on a huge lecture-hall screen. It was the last in Fridays presentation by an expert suggesting how Modesto and Turlock might solve emerging problems of too much pumping.
Modesto, consider the possibilities, hydrogeologist Chris Petersen said as he clicked to the clever slide, drawing laughter from the standing-room-only crowd of about 300 crammed into a Modesto Junior College auditorium.
Petersen, who was raised in Ripon and attended MJC for three years before going on to graduate degrees and gaining a reputation for water expertise, said this area could learn much from others that have gathered stakeholders, approached state government for grant money and formed cooperative water districts. He focused on those that inject and store water below the Earths surface, a fairly untried strategy in these parts.
I believe we here in Modesto are pretty darned smart and can figure this out and can be an example to the rest of the world, Petersen said.
The cost of underground storage isnt as bad as people might think, he said: as little as $110 per year for an acre-foot of water, or about what two small families use in a year. Thats compared with as much as $1,000 per acre-foot for above-ground reservoirs, or $2,000 for desalinization taking salt out of sea water, he said. Its not that bad, Petersen concluded. This is the way to go.
The cost of doing nothing is worse: Wells continue to go dry as many already have in the Denair area water quality degrades, farmers quit growing and lawsuits mount.
Youre going to be fighting your neighbor and making the lawyers rich. Who wants to do that? Petersen said. Either come together and work together and solve it yourselves go to the state and ask for money; theyll willingly give it to you or you do nothing and the state will step in and take control.
He said he was stunned that so many would give up Friday night social activities to hear him speak about a subject that many consider dry. In his 26 years as a water expert, he never had appeared before a crowd so large, he said.
About half of those in Fridays audience were students, judging by a show of hands, and maybe a third were property owners concerned for their wells. They could be jeopardized by neighbors pumps, which can suck from aquifers laterally without anyone seeing it from the surface.
Growers have sunk gigantic wells to nourish millions of new almond trees on previously marginal rangeland lining the east side of the Valley. That area does not seem able to replenish its groundwater basins, compared with that under the Modesto area, which relieved aquifer stress after the city quit pumping so much when its canal water treatment plant began operating in the mid-1990s.
Other regions are much worse off than this, Petersen said, pointing to San Joaquin County, the region from Merced to Bakersfield, and India.
In a question-and-answer period after Petersens slide show, Oakdale Irrigation District board member Frank Clark challenged his principal suggestion for recharging aquifers, asking why anyone would want to give wealthy nut investors even more to pump. Its just corporate greed, Clark said. Theyre going to keep pumping more and more, and you cant put water in the ground fast enough to compensate for them pulling it out.